Buckeye Model Train and Railroad Artifacts Show Reflects a Hobby Setting its Course for a New Generation


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Golden Spike Enterprises 70th Columbus Model Train and Railroad Artifacts show.
Photo: William Flood

Golden Spike Enterprises held its 70th Columbus Model Train and Railroad Artifacts show at the Ohio State Fairgrounds on April 16, 2022. The group has been the premier organizer of railroad shows across the country for three decades. The Columbus events are Ohio’s largest combined model train and railroad memorabilia shows.

For those unfamiliar with railroad-related hobbies, they run along two tracks. The first is railroadiana which encompasses all types of railroad artifacts and memorabilia. Collectors pursue many interests, including train hardware, railroad lanterns, keys, signs, dining car china, and railroad-related ephemera.

On the other track is model train collecting. This also has its sub-specialties, usually involving the gauges (scales of trains). Collectors have their favorites—the popular standard gauge, O, N, and the best known, HO gauge. In addition, brands like American Flyer, Athearn, Lionel, and Walthers have their fans. Model train collectors hunt for everything from engines and cars to buildings and tracks to outfit displays.

Larger standard gauge and O gauge model trains attract collectors who grew up in the 1950s and prior.
Photo: William Flood

There was a time when certain categories of railroadiana were so popular you could have pursued them as investments. Today, railfans voice some ominous concerns—an aging base of hobbyists and seemingly disinterested younger generations threaten the hobby. Yet, there are still many positives; among the upsides is the enduring popularity of watching real trains and even model train displays. While not everyone is a collector, most everyone still loves a train!

The Buckeye show reflected the state of the hobby. The population was very “grandfatherly.” Yet, just as conspicuous were the preschool-age children, mesmerized by the model train displays, who represent the hobby’s future. And while first glance may have pointed to the event space being monopolized by dealers and attendees representing the sixty-plus male demographic, things weren’t always what they appeared. Upon closer examination, numerous women were on both sides of dealer tables. In addition, a decent portion of the population appeared to be Gen-X and younger.

How Railroadiana Collecting is Changing

Vendors at the Ohio event were keenly attuned to changes within their hobby. Richard Tarnacki, a dealer from Middleburg Heights, Ohio, with 20 years of experience, said, “The crowd is aging. The average age is 60 or 70 years old.” Other dealers expressed similar sentiments. Chris Johnson from Columbus said, “Not enough younger people are filling the hobby.” Another Ohioan claimed, “It’s kind of an aging hobby. Kids are more interested in their cell phones.”

Gary Betz from Ionia, Michigan, who’s sold railroad ephemera since the early 80s, had a somber observation for his specialty. Pointing to the ubiquity of content online, he said younger generations are “Less interested in historical pieces because they can access digital copies on the internet,” adding, “It means nothing for them to hold an authentic copy of a timetable from the 1950s if they can get it online.”

Like these Baltimore and Ohio pieces, railroad china could once be found with price tags in the hundreds. Selling prices are more modest today but may be moving upwards again.
Photo: William Flood

What Kind of Railroadiana Interests Younger Collectors?

Patterns of interest in railroadiana seem to run along generational lines. Kevin Casteel from Cardington, Ohio, said that railroad memorabilia, like china, appeals to “middle-age and up.” “Younger guys like locomotive hardware,” he observed. Nearby, a dealer with tables full of railroad keys and locomotive gauges claimed younger patrons interested in steampunk are his most frequent buyers.

Gary Betz, like others, suggested, “Younger people are drawn to trains they see running today, like a CSX they see on the tracks.” Bruce Carpenter from Wapakoneta, Ohio, concurred, “Younger people buy more modern stuff” and pointed out that signs were hot. Leonard Robbins, from Atlanta, has sold aviation and transportation collectibles since the 1970s. He said younger buyers are drawn to smaller items like buttons, union pins, and transit tokens. “For a young person in their 20s, their dad worked for TWA or whatever,” he said. So, they look for items connected to that heritage.

Small items like these pin-back buttons are popular with younger collectors.
Photo: William Flood

How Demographics Changes in Railroad Collecting are Affecting Price

For a lot of railroadiana, changing demographics led to downward pricing momentum, at least for a while.

Atlanta’s Robbins was very candid, “Older dealers can’t get their mind wrapped around pricing for the times. Stuff that was $100 years ago, you are lucky if you can get $30 now.” He pointed to dealers with nicely-staged railroad china, “You don’t see pieces with $600 price tags selling. Lots of these guys are not going to get the prices they put on items.”

Gary Rolih from Cincinnati noted, “Prices started falling around the financial crisis about 2009.” He mentioned that last year’s show was slow, but “Now everything is starting to come back up.” He senses prices trending higher this year. Kevin Casteel observed much the same, “It was good until about 2011. Then stuff declined for five to six years. Now, it’s back on the upswing.”

A popular item with railroadiana collectors is railroad lanterns. Prices can run from under $25 for incomplete or poor-condition ones to five figures for rare and top-condition examples. However, dealers warn to watch out for reproductions.
Photo: William Flood

Model Trains are Faring Differently than Railroad Memorabilia

Richard Tarnacki expressed concerns for model trains like those for railroadiana, “The newer generation likes its devices. They are not into tactile hobbies.” He said, “With this, it’s putting a layout together; it’s planning the scenery; it’s getting the electrical connections correct. Most kids have no interest in that.”

Kevin Casteel’s brother Phillip, the model train specialist in the family, would disagree, “Model trains are still popular with younger generations. They have remained a staple of the hobby.” A Toledo dealer said that the smaller HO and N scales are always popular. “I have starter sets to get people into the hobby for less than the price of a video game. A lot of kids get started that way.”

According to Casteel, one of the things that keeps model trains popular is that you can outfit a train set up for a time period of interest. “Boomers buy what they had as kids. Millennials outfit what they see running today, like Norfolk Southern or Amtrak.” Chris Johnson alluded, as well, to people buying their youth. “Many people today buy HO because that’s what they grew up with in the 70s. For those who grew up in the 50s, it’s O gauge, and for those born earlier, it’s the larger standard gauge.”

Whether it’s a model train display or railroad lanterns, most railroad collectors reflect grandparents more than grandchildren. Yet, it’s those older generations who are keeping the hobby viable. That said, one only needs to observe a 4-year-old at a train display to know interest in all things “railroad” is far from over. No cell phone can tear a child away from an operating train display! Chris Johnson succinctly reflected on what may drive future generations to adopt the hobby, “Their grandfather or father had trains, and they might eventually get into it. Time will tell.”

William Flood is a mid-century antiques dealer and writer specializing in twentieth-century commercial culture. He writes for numerous antique and collectibles publications on subjects like roadside architecture, 1950s modernism, and even vintage tiki culture. He is the author of two Ohio local history guides. When not writing, you might find him enjoying a small-town Main Street or taking the great American road trip.

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